This year’s Western wildfires have burned thousands of acres of national forest and Bureau of Land Management grazing allotments, leaving cattle and sheep ranchers scrambling to save herds on summer ranges and find alternative feed.
While wildfires are a fact of life in the West, many ranchers blame the intensity of this year’s blazes on federal land management policies and environmental lawsuits that have allowed large fuel loads to build up more quickly, fueling fires that burn larger and hotter.
“It’s not rocket science,” Steve Damele, and Idaho rancher who has lost as much as half of his grazing land to fire this year, said. “We all knew it was going to happen sooner or later.”
Hardly rocket science.
Since the fire that burned 794,000 acres of Yellowstone National Park in 1988, even the most casual observers have been aware of the dangers of the accumulated fuel load in our forests’ understory.
Fire is a natural and important component in forest ecology. Before European settlement, natural fires would regularly clear out the fuel load — the dead wood and the scrub — and make room for new growth.
Throughout much of the last century it became federal policy to fight fires in order to preserve the national forests for their intended purpose — to provide the nation with lumber. With regular logging, thinning and grazing, the fuel load was kept at bay.
In recent years, human activity on a great deal of federal land has been restricted to keep habitat of endangered species intact. Environmentalists have filed numerous lawsuits in an attempt to prevent logging and grazing on thousands of acres not already set aside.
Without active management, fuel loads have grown and fires have become larger and more destructive. Last month the Forest Service ran out of money to fight the 50 active fires burning on federal lands.
The intensity of this year’s fires prompted U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Idaho Republican Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo to promise an effort this fall to pass a forest management plan that includes more thinning of overgrown forest stands and proper grazing.
In the House of Representatives, Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., is advancing the Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act, which aims to re-establish a priority for actively managing federal lands through timber production and other measures.
These efforts have been tried before by legislators eager to combat the staggering unemployment caused in many rural Western regions when the timber harvests stopped.
We hope fresh images of the destruction, and the memory of the firefighters killed this summer in Arizona, will sway Congress to adopt a more active management plan.